Musical Legend Herbie Hancock Fuses Jazz, Global Rhythms

September 16, 2010 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown catches up with music legend Herbie Hancock, who celebrated his 70th birthday earlier this year and is touring in support of his latest album "The Imagine Project."

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight:A jazz legend embraces a world of music. Jeffrey Brown has our report.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s this Herbie Hancock, composer and performer of numerous jazz standards, and there’s this Herbie Hancock, an electric keyboard slung over his shoulder for one of his fusion hits.

But don’t try this “tale of two Herbies” theme on the man himself.

HERBIE HANCOCK, musician:I’m the same guy.



HERBIE HANCOCK: I just express myself in any way I feel is appropriate at the moment. I don’t wear the same clothes every day, you know? Actually, in a way, I do.


JEFFREY BROWN: Now 70, Hancock recently performed at a star-studded concert at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles that celebrated his birthday, his life in music, and his most recent endeavor, “The Imagine Project,” an ambitious album recorded with more than 60 artists in seven different countries, an attempt, he says, to have music make people think in a new way about globalization.

HERBIE HANCOCK: The idea was a very lofty idea.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was a great idea, but then you had to go make it happen.



HERBIE HANCOCK: That was a lot harder.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hancock traveled the world to work with leading musicians of disparate styles, including sitar player Anoushka Shankar in India, the Chieftains in Ireland, and Colombian Latin music star Juanes.

When we talked at his Los Angeles home recently, Hancock said he wanted to show that musical collaboration can help people think about ways to deal with global problems.

HERBIE HANCOCK: As a human being, I’m concerned about the world that I live in.So, I’m concerned about peace.I’m concerned about — about man’s inhumanity to man.I’m concerned about the environment.

I don’t go around, the way many musicians do, with earbuds in my ear listening to my iPod all day and just sticking my head in the music all the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Herbie Hancock’s own musical journey began as a boy in Chicago.Classically trained, he was good enough to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at a youth concert at age 11.

Turning to jazz, Hancock gained sudden and international fame in his early 20s with his first great collaborator and mentor, Miles Davis.An early lesson came at a concert in Europe.At first, Hancock says, everything was going right.

HERBIE HANCOCK: We had the audience in the palm of our hands. And right as everything was really peaking, and Miles was soloing, I played this chord, and it was completely wrong.


HERBIE HANCOCK: And Miles took a breath and then played some notes, and the notes made my chord right.

JEFFREY BROWN: The notes made your chord right?

HERBIE HANCOCK: Yes.Somehow, what he chose to play fit my chords to the structure of the music.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what did you learn from that?

HERBIE HANCOCK: What I learned from that is that Miles didn’t hear the chord as being wrong.He just heard it as something new that happened.So, he didn’t judge it.I learned the importance of being nonjudgmental, taking what happens and trying to make it work.That’s something you should apply to life, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, how did you learn to use that to make your own individual voice?

HERBIE HANCOCK: If you’re not judging what happens, then you’re trusting what they’re doing, what you’re playing, and trusting what you’re playing.And it can lead you to other ideas, to something maybe you hadn’t expressed before.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the 1970s and ’80s, Hancock stretched the bounds of jazz perhaps more than any other musician of his time and reached crossover popular success with his electrified fusion sound.Some purists — he calls them the jazz police — thought he had gone too far.But the broader public loved it, and so did Hancock, who nowadays plays with some of his technological toys in his basement recording studio.

You love the technology, huh?

HERBIE HANCOCK: I was an engineering major in college for two years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that right?

HERBIE HANCOCK: Yes. So, when synthesizers came along…

JEFFREY BROWN: You were ready.You were ready.


HERBIE HANCOCK: Yes.It was like the best of both worlds for me, which is acoustic instruments and — and, well, music and science.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the years since, Hancock has released recordings and performed with groups that go back and forth between acoustic and electronic sounds, and that often bridge jazz and popular music, as with his 2008 disk, “River,” which reinterpreted the music of Joni Mitchell.It was the surprise winner of a Grammy for album of the year.

HERBIE HANCOCK: We should keep looking at finding ways to combine, because, I mean, how do you make different colors?You make different colors by combining those colors that already exist.

You know, to me, that’s what makes the world interesting.That’s what makes the world continue to evolve.To me, it’s part of an overview that I hold close to my heart.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it’s based on all that preparation that you have and the training, which started as a kid, right, with classical music.

HERBIE HANCOCK: Yes.And, also, it takes a lot of focus.Doing this musically takes a lot of concentration and being willing to be naked, in a way, being vulnerable.That’s the best place to be in playing jazz and in improvising and reinterpreting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Herbie Hancock is finding that place, as he continues his world tour with “The Imagine Project” and enjoys a yearlong 70th birthday celebration.